Archive for September, 2010

Educational nightmare

September 30th, 2010 11:48 AM
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We've all had this nightmare, haven't we? (Click for larger image.)

xkcd: Students

True to the comic's caption, this dream has plagued me for nearly twenty years. As it's most common just before a graduation, I'll be due some sleepless nights come May 2011. Though logic has no place in the realm of sleep, upon waking, I find comfort not only in my diploma, but also in knowing I'm not alone in this fear.

Some companies are malicious enough to play on our fears for profit, and Apple is no exception:

Aren't all the fond memories we have of the Apple II from writing term papers on it at 3 AM? How would we have graduated without it? On the other hand, data was far more fragile in the Eighties than it is now. How many nightmares were caused by school papers being lost to malfunctions, user error — or, worst of all, dysentery?

Warring Battle Chess reactions

September 27th, 2010 12:33 PM
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There's a new game being released tomorrow that should seem familiar to Apple II users. Here's a preview trailer:

Battle vs. Chess is, as many games have been over the years, inspired by Battle Chess, Interplay's first-ever computer game, for which there was an Apple IIGS version. This new take will be released on Sept. 28, and will cost $40 for Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3; $30 for Nintendo Wii; and $20 for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) handhelds, as well as for Mac OS X and Windows.

When I first saw those prices, I was disappointed — and then confused at my own disappointment. Battle Chess is one of my favorite incarnations of chess and was one of the few games I was able to play online against other gamers in the pre-Internet days. I was excited to discover Battle vs. Chess, which I could play online easily; offline, its AI would probably make its moves less ponderously than my 2.8 MHz Apple allowed. Shouldn't I be eager to pay at least as much for this experience as I did for the original in 1988?

And yet I'm not. As primarily a console gamer, I want to play Battle vs. Chess on my Xbox 360 — but no matter what I paid for Battle Chess back in the day, $40 now seems too much for a digital version of the board game in my closet. I expected Battle vs. Chess to be a $15 digital release, not a full-fledged retail product.

Why the change in reception? What could prompt me to pay full price for an animated chess game twenty years ago, but not today, despite the benefits of advances in technology that the interceding time affords this new game? I faced the same disparity six years ago when I played the Xbox game Wrath Unleashed, which was an almost perfect clone of another favorite Apple II strategy game, Archon. I still occasionally play Archon to this day, while LucasArts' spiritual successor for Xbox, which is both glitzier and more accessible, gathers dust.

If this were mere nostalgia, then, much like the Angry Video Game Nerd, I would be discovering that I'd been remembering the games of my youth more fondly than they deserved. But Battle Chess and Archon are still fun. How come their modern equivalents don't inspire similar enthusiasm?

My best guess is that, no matter what the presentation style or interface, the core gameplay of games like Battle Chess and Battle vs. Chess are identical, and the updated graphics and additional gameplay features aren't enough for me to spend money on a game I already own. These timeless experiences would benefit little from a mere a visual upgrade.

So yes, Battle vs. Chess is worth $40 — which is why I already bought it twenty years ago. But $20 for a new Mac version? That I might be able to swing, just for old times' sake.

(Hat tip to Joystiq)

UPDATE: Release of this game has been pushed back to Spring 2011, per an email to me of from James Seaman, Managing Director of Topware Interactive.

UPDATE 2: This game was eventually renamed Check vs. Mate.

Cultivating and cataloging online resources

September 23rd, 2010 12:18 PM
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If you have access to the Internet — and if you don't, I'm curious how you're reading this — then Apple II support is just a click away. From software vendors to hardware manufacturers, message boards to chat rooms, program repositories to magazine archives, there's a Web site for everything.

Or is there? Doubtless there's room for growth in any community, and we should encourage new online enterprises. They needn't be commercial in nature. For example, this blog is a mere five months old, but I think it is doing something that no one else is: producing original content on a regular basis about what it means to be an Apple II user. What other online resources could serve the Apple II and its fans?

However, a problem with a growing community is awareness of its new members. When a site launches, how does one make its presence known, and how does it become able to be found? This isn't the old days of GEnie, when we could move to page 645 and find everything meticulously organized (or, in today's lingo, "curated") into searchable topics, categories, and libraries. Instead, the Internet offers so many destinations that any one site can easily be overlooked.

There are a couple attempts to address this issue. David Kerwood maintains the A2-Web!, intended as a comprehensive index of Apple II resources, from user homepages to emulator download sites and online stores. The site contains many vendors I've never seen referenced elsewhere, leading to some wonderful discoveries. However, A2-Web! is often dependent on user contributions for reports of new or broken links, resulting in some occasionally outdated data. A chronological record of changes lacks an RSS list, making it hard to discover these updates.

David also coordinates the 32-member Apple II webring, a pre-search-engine networking concept devised by GeoCities.

More recently, Bill Martens has been maintaining the Apple Archives, which links to Apple II content but also hosts quite a bit itself, including scans of well-known publications. Instead of textual descriptions of the site, the indices offer image thumbnails of the Web sites; clicking on these will sometimes offer a more verbose description with a link to the actual site, though some listings, like KansasFest and Juiced.GS, lack a detailed description. Like A2-Web!, the Apple Archives is broken down into several categories, but their entries aren't in alphabetical order, and a few could use more obvious categorization: for example, Syndicomm is listed under "Programming", "Support/Projects", and "Vendors", but not "Software" or "Docs". There also doesn't appear to be a category for blogs and other hobbyist pursuits.

Although the Internet offers unprecedented opportunity for peer-to-peer support, and the above efforts make creating and finding these sites vastly easier, it's apparent that the Apple II community still has work to do. Just as programmers sometimes solicit ideas for new software, I'm eager to hear your ideas for new Web sites and online tools. What changes or additions would you suggest the wealth of Apple II online resources adopt? And how can we disseminate news of those changes in a way that makes them able to be found not just by today's members, but by tomorrow's newcomers as well?

Alderaan Trail

September 20th, 2010 1:23 PM
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Oregon Trail, having recently enjoyed a successful film adaptation, is now being adapted to a variety of other media. The first is a mashup with another storied film franchise:

Alderaan Trail Shoppe
But I was going to Tosche Station for some power converters!
Image copyright Matt Marchini.

Sadly, this is one of several pictures that are not screen shots from an actual game, but mockups of a theoretical one. From the photo album's description:

A long time ago in a galaxy pretty far away… As a galactic civil war rages on, the escalating violence in your system has reached new heights. Seeking a better life you and a small band of compatriots set out on a perilous journey to find a new home. Alderaan, a small blue planet know for it's civility ( it is said by many that they have no weapons) would make the perfect retreat for your loved ones hoping to avoid Imperial entanglements. Untold danger awaits you on… THE ALDERAAN TRAIL.

A version that's closer to the original in setting but a far cry in genre is So Long, Oregon! for iOS. Here's a trailer for this side-scrolling shooter:

Also available for the iPhone is Oregon Trail itself, which was reviewed in the March 2010 issue of Juiced.GS. More affordably, if you want to play a modern retelling, check out Thule Road Trip online, as detailed in my KansasFest 2009 presentation.

In whatever era or medium you play this classic game, you'll likely find it harder than you remember. Rather than mourn your inevitable failure, celebrate that you were able to experience even a fraction of the glorious Oregon Trail:

epic fail photos - Cake WIN

(Hat tip to Bob's House of Video Games)

Geocaching with Lord British

September 16th, 2010 12:51 PM
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At KansasFest 2009, Ryan Suenaga presented a session entitled "Geocaching for Noobs by a Noob", in which he gave an overview of the pastime known as geocaching. This hobby requires using a GPS-eabled device to find hidden treasures that other players have planted and then logged the coordinates of at Geocaching.com.

Ryan isn't the only Apple II user with an interest in geocaching. Richard Garriott — aka Lord British, the creator of the Ultima RPG series — is also an avid geocacher, proving a love for gaming that extends beyond the electronic. But Garriott, who never does anything halfheartedly, has taken this sport to new heights — and depths!

In October 2008, when Garriott became the first second-generation astronaut, he took the opportunity to plant a geocache on the outside of the International Space Station. At an altitude of 250 miles, it became the world's highest geocache. Five years earlier, he'd left a geocache at the Rainbow Hydrothermal Vents, at the time the world's deepest geocache at 2300 meters below sea level.

Recognizing that most terrestrial geocachers would find these troves beyond their reach, Garriott has manifested his love of gaming in this real-world haunted cache. The description for the Mystery Cache Necropolis of Britannia Manor III indicates that this cache has eight chapters, a dozen secret instructions, and numerous hints and codes — an adventure worthy of an Ultima veteran. If you still can't figure it out, you can even join the Facebook group for this specific cache and get help from over two hundred other fans.

If you have a Geocaching.com account, you can view Lord British's profile and all the caches he's made or found.

Although this activity does not require an Apple II, it's evidence of the creativity the Apple II can inspire in its founding programmers, even three decades later.

(Hat tip to Bitmob)

Teaching retroprogramming

September 13th, 2010 9:09 AM
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The annual Beloit College Mindset List, which outlines the world in which the incoming class of college freshman grew up, indicates that for members of the class of 2014, "The first home computer they probably touched was an Apple II or Mac II; they are now in a museum."

Fortunately, for students in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, England, their experience with retrocomputers is more recent — and eminently practical. BBC News reports:

As a former teacher, I can fully get behind this classroom curriculum. It wasn't long ago that I suggested a lab of Apple II computers could be an effective and modern learning tool. Although the computers featured in this video are not Woz's brainchild, they are its contemporaries and teach many of the same lessons my proposed lab would. As one student said, "The old machines have a lot to teach us. They run a lot slower, and you can actually see the instructions executing in real-time."

What I hope the students learn is how to make the most of limited hardware and software resources, though this quotation makes me wonder if they missed that point: "It makes you a lot more efficient, and you think more about your code, because it's harder to type it all in." Although the arduousness of input can indeed be a powerful motivator against error, I don't think it's a programming environment that one need tolerate on even a classic computer. The Apple II worked around this limitation with Beagle Bros' excellent Program Writer for Applesoft BASIC. Such utilities don't encourage sloppy programming but instead improve the rate at which you can learn from your mistakes, whereas modern machines and their gluttonous resources permit sloppy programming that would never fly on a computer whose memory is measured in kilobytes.

This classroom's demographic reminds me of the demoparty I attended this summer, where most attendees were younger than the computers they were hacking. KansasFest likewise has an increasingly youthful attendance, with Apple II users still in or recently out of undergraduate programs. This next generation of retrocomputing enthusiasts has great potential to apply modern programming techniques and structure to classic design. For example, put these students into a limited-time programming contest, and you'd have HackFest. I wonder how they would fare?

I couldn't help but take umbrage when the reporter says that the student's work almost looks like a "real video game". Of course it's a real video game! Software doesn't need rockstar programmers or cutting-edge technology. The original versions of Lode Runner and Oregon Trail have more staying power than any jazzed-up modern adaptations. I wouldn't be surprised if these kids are the next programmers to recapture the fun and wonder of these classic games.

Because BBC is awesome, their story also has one of their own news reports from Oct. 17, 1986, that showcases the computers of the day, including the Apple IIGS. That video is not embeddable, so I encourage you to watch it on their site.

(Hat tip to Slashdot and Mitch Wagner)